Chestnuts Roasting on The Flaming Idiots
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 18, 2009
There are lots of holiday alternatives in town this year, from traditional fare at Radio City and smaller venues like 13th Street Repertory to wildly irreverent deconstructions by the likes of Christopher Durang and the Naked Holidays gang. Bridging both worlds, yet absolutely nothing like either of them, is Chestnuts Roasting on the Flaming Idiots. Ensconced at the New Victory Theatre, this show for kids of (literally) all ages is a hoot and a half. And it's got everything a 21st century holiday show needs, from "Jingle Bells" to an unwitting audience volunteer brought to the stage during the flaming torch juggling bit.
Actually, I was sold on Chestnuts during the pre-show, when the band (Jason Connor on keyboards, Arnie Yanez on drums, and Thomas Nuendel—who sports the longest dreadlocks I've ever seen) played some warm-up music as the audience found their way to their seats. Their set included both "If I Only Had a Brain" from The Wizard of Oz and the disco classic "I Will Survive," which I think may be a first. They play with a cool folk/funk styling that's irresistible.
Once the show begins, we meet the Flaming Idiots, who are three in number: Gyro (Rob Williams), Pyro (Jon O'Connor), and Walter (Kevin Hunt). The NewVicBill tells us that these guys have been retired for five years, following 20 years working and touring together with their edgy juggling/vaudeville shows. This reunion proves most welcome. The Idiots are smart, hilarious, and apparently unafraid of anything, be it risking injury by throwing dangerous objects at each other, or risking looking ridiculous, which they do (Pyro, especially) many times during the show. They suggest an Xtreme version of the Flying Karamazov Brothers—a bit less erudite and bit rougher around the edges than that troupe, but just as jaw-droppingly skillful.
Some of the skills we sample in Chestnuts include: Gyro making a bologna sandwich with his feet; Pyro tossing as many as six coins in the air and catching them before they fall to the ground (this is much harder than it might sound); Walter swallowing a very lengthy balloon; and all three juggling knives, pins, flaming torches, balls, and—my favorite—beanbag chairs. Gyro cracks a treacherous-looking whip at one point, and three different audience members get roped into the show at various points, to the delight of the schadenfreude fans still seated. There are a couple of holiday numbers that are both silly and sweet at the same time, and there are several show-within-the-show tributes to tv and vaudeville iconography that add humor and weight to the proceedings. The patter is terrific and aimed almost always for the adults. The music is wonderful.
I'm not sure that Chestnuts is ideally a kids' show, though some of the items on the bill are definitely pitched toward the small fry; it seems to me, on balance, that this is a show that would work best in front of an audience of hip 20-year-olds who had each just quaffed a few beers. But I think anyone, in any age group, and at any sobriety level, will have some fun in the presence of the Flaming Idiots. If and when they reunite again, I'll probably check them out, just to see what off-kilter and beyond-imagining stunts they decide to tackle then.